Round Trip to Ravello: Travel Terror, Italian style

“They are close enough to kiss” said the Cackler in wonder. The two bus drivers were enjoying a chat through open windows as they manoeuvred their buses past each other on the road to Positano. Inside our bus, those of us on the driver’s side willed him to make it without dent or scratch. Those seated on the side of the bus overlooking the coastal cliffs simply shut their eyes and prayed for survival. In the aisle, people enduring standing room only were glad the pace had slowed a little, allowing them to relax their white-knuckle hold on the headrests of others. Just as they dared to flex their aching hips, knees and ankles, the bus lurched forward once more. Everyone, seated and otherwise, assumed the brace position.

The Amalfi coast is world famous both for its stunning views and perilous road. I hitched from Sorrento to Amalfi when I was 17 and have had to live an exemplary life since, so hard did I pray for my life that day. When the Cackler first suggested a trip to Calabria I was very firm: neither of us would drive.

A 24 hour bus pass allowing unlimited travel up and down the coast costs only 6 Euros 80 cents per person, or about $10. The Cackler and I were feeling very smug to have found this great deal. Most of our hotel mates were paying 80 euros for a tour package, and some had splashed out more than 300 euros for the privilege of completing the terror drive by taxi. It is not known how many of the people who start out on the public bus come home by ambulance, but presumably the bus company relies on the emergency services to relieve them of some troublesome overages. Certainly Sita do not plan to bring home the same number of passengers as they set out with each day. There was a scrum in Amalfi as we all fought for seats in the 7 pm service back to Sorrento.

The sun, it appears, has addled my brain. The bargain bus deposited us at the top of a steep hill that leads down to the many ceramics shops,gelato stands, and coffee shops of Positano. I set out staunchly as the Cackler paused to consider how I would manage the return journey to the top of the hill. “Don’t worry,” I told her “I’ll get a boy to take me on the back of his Vesta.” The Cackler laughed so hard she nearly sprang a leak. “Vesta is a packet curry” she snorted. “You mean a Vespa” I did. This slip of the tongue afforded the Cackler much amusement all day. “Lovely Vista” she said, looking out at the boats beyond the beach “or would you rather have a Vesta?”

Positano is the Italian Portstewart, having lots of ice cream coloured houses fronting the beach. The strand at Portstewart is better as there are only pebbles to lie on in Positano, but Positano may have the edge when it comes to sunshine, sparkling wine,grilled artichokes, seafood risotto, hazelnut ice cream and the like.

The boy on the Vespa failed to materialize. I don’t understand it. There always seemed to be one to hand when I was 17. I would have taken a ride on the back of a Vindaloo to avoid walking back up that hill but luckily there was a local bus brave enough to tackle the narrow streets and vertiginous heights and so we made it up to the main road in time to catch the 2pm bus for Amalfi. We got the front seat on the coastal side for this Helter skelter journey. Our lives flashed before us several times.

The sun was low in the sky by the time we reached Amalfi. “Just in time for Vespers” said the Cackler ” or can I interest you in a Chow Mein?”

The cathedral, a mix of Moorish black and white, gold tempura (is this one of Vesta’s new Japanese line? No, it’s a kind of ancient paint) and a big bronze door, towers above the tiny streets of the medieval town, rebuilt since the original slipped into the sea after an earthquake in 1343. Unfortunately, the Cathedral is accessible only if visitors can scale a lot of stairs. “You go,” I said to the Cackler who is as nimble as a mountain goat “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly leave you ” she replied, flopping into a chair outside a cafe in the Piazza Duomo.

We ordered drinks “Vino or Vesta?” The Cackler wanted to know “Biera or Biriyani?” She cracks herself up.

Time for the bus to Ravello, suave and distinguished in the early evening sun. Again, we failed to get past the greened bronze door of this cathedral but opted for another drink and another cafe in another square. “Verdigris or Pinot Gris?” The joke was wearing thin. I glowere at the Cackler. “I’m only Rogan Joshing you” she said.

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With Audrey, on Capri

It beats me how Audrey Hepburn ever squeezed her calves into a pair of Capri pants. If the actress spent any time on the island of Capri she must have been very beefy twixt knee and ankle because the inclines and dips on this small, rocky outcrop demand a lot of muscle power from those seeking to triapse lightly from Armani to Missoni or from Cavalli to Prada.The Cackler and I did the traipsing in sensible flatties not high heels. Unlike most of the other daytrippers we weren’t weighed down with high-end shopping bags, but still we found the cobbled piazzas and steep streets hard on the calves.

Perhaps no playgrounds are without pain but Capri offers a torture all its own. We aimed to look delightful, doe-eyed and dewy just like Hepburn but this was difficult with shin splints. I was travel stained and crumpled by the time we had completed the ferry crossing and stepped off the finicular.The Cackler, having perfected her chignon, did rather better. She persisted in wearing her cardigan loosely knotted round her neck and a pair of cat-eye sunglasses. The look she was aiming for was effortlessly chic and she damn near pulled it off.

Everything you have ever heard about Capri is true. Views are spectacular,the sea is indeed azure blue,and the beautiful people go there to spend money and show themselves off in the sunshine. We visited the Augustin gardens–actually little more than a flower bed or two–and did what we could to dodge around German visitors so we could snap ourselves looking glamorous against world famous backdrops.

After our photo shoot we briefly considered stalking Leonardo di Caprio who is rumoured to spend time on the island. We abandoned this idea when we realized that if we found him we wouldn’t know what to do with him.

“Er, we liked you in Titanic”

“Bet you are glad you broke up with that Gisele”

“How do you get your hair to flop like that?”

“Have you ever been to Belfast?”

Already tired both of the Germanic horde and the Prada posse,we decided to walk down to the small marina for lunch. It was a long way. By the time we reached the beach I was definitely looking more Hemingway (Earnest) than Hepburn. We shared a pizza topped with rocket and cherry tomatoes and took a bus back to the town. It was time to do some posing on the piazza. By this time, sunburned and smelling of a lunchtime beer,I looked like a bag lady. There was a serious risk that I would be asked to step away from the smart set.I think they only let me in because Anne was looking so very Audrey. The woman sitting beside me needed a seat for her Prada handbag. A middle aged man behind us was obviously someone snappable, but we didn’t know who. Passers by stopped to ask for a picture and eventually a paparazzo turned up. Once sufficiently noticed and admired, the object of everyone’s attention left the cafe and walked toward the church with his much younger girlfriend. All eyes followed them, just as they were meant to. We still don’t know who he was, just that he wasn’t Leonardo.

Have you ever noticed how the effortlessly chic ignore the bar snacks so thoughtfully provided in the better class of pub? The Cackler, still channelling Audrey, was pretty good at this and succumbed only to a crisp or two. I scoffed the rest, adding salty and greasy to the growing list of describing words standing between me and effortlessly chic.

Back in the hotel we were completing our bedtime ablutions when the Cackler found a peanut on the bathroom floor. “Did that fall out of your cleavage?” She asked, regarding it and me disdainfully. I denied it, but she knew.

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Sharp tongues, sharp corners and a steady hand: sister love in Sorrento

“I like that cardigan,” said the Cackler, “it’s not the kind of thing you usually  wear”

I am famous for my attachment to cardigans so I pressed her to elaborate.

“It’s pretty and understated” she replied “not your kind of thing at all.”

That’s the joy of having a sister.

Knits, ugly or otherwise, were welcome on our second chilly morning by the Bay of Naples. So far, the sun has failed to shine on our Italian holiday .  We  take the rain as a sign from God that we should stop for coffee or have another drink. It is easier to face a downpour when exhilarated by a mid-morning glass of Prosecco.

By lunchtime we had survived the dark clouds and the howling wind and had made it to the Marina Grande for a seafood lunch. The restaurant was called the Five Sisters. My heart sank. Could I and my outfit survive multi-sibling scrutiny?

There was no need to worry. It turns out that other people’s sisters are sweetness and light.  The grilled fish was delicious as was the bread and tomato salad . It continued to rain. The afternoon called for a pitcher of red wine.

The bus on the way back to the hotel hit a wall when it turned an especially tight corner. The driver got out not to inspect the damage but to right his wing mirror. He would need it to help him complete his twenty three point turn.  I felt for him. I have been doing some pretty fancy manoeuvring myself on Sorrento’s streets. I have a gammy knee and Italy doesn’t seem to have received the EU memos on handrails. The streets are hilly, the steps are steep and the pavements are uneven. Luckily my sister is on hand. It’s good to have someone to lean on.



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Holy Terror: Good Friday in Sorrento,Italy

Anything hooded is usually a fashion item best avoided. When the hood is black and covers the face it is positively sinister looking, particularly when paired with a long black soutain and flaming torch.

Every man in Sorrento must own this get up but it is to be hoped that,young or old,they usually keep their costumes in a cupboard and bring them out only on Good Friday. They are the stuff of night terrors.

A brass band played the Death March, Ave Maria and other related classics as hundreds of the hooded walked through the city’s narrow streets. The men carried lanterns, crosses and giant pallets featuring Christ on a bed of thorns and the BVM surrounded by white roses. It was dark and the watching crowd, a mix of locals and tourists,stood in eerie silence as the parade passed. There was some snapping and clicking but the smart phones were unusually subdued,and all smart mouths were shut.

The Cackler and I stood solemnly until the last lantern swung by and we then adjourned for a mezzo litre of vino rosso hoping to miss the stampede from the town square as the faithful and the foreigners scrambled to get back to their cars. Our bar had seats outside but  the weather here has fallen a little short of balmy. The Cackler’s skinny fingers were soon frozen an white, the colour of bleached bones. We  finished our wine and began to walk home. We caught up with the end of the parade at the cathedral and heard the benediction before the suffering Christ and his mum were hoisted one last time and hurried back into storage until Sunday.

The mood changed. Choir boys from the front of the procession stripped off their medieval masks and played in the cathedral forecourt, their soutains streaming behind them as they shouted and laughed.  Ritual over,  the men of the town uncloaked, revealing top knots, side burns and earrings. Smoke from cigarettes replaced the church smell of chasubles. In Ferrari bomber jackets, dad sweaters and jeans, they were once more everyday, approachable and ordinary.

We pushed through the press and made it our hotel in one piece. I am in bed now,with my clothes in a pile on the floor. They smell of incense.



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The Mist of A Memory

20140417_123103_resizedWe walked by the Land of Green Ginger and past The Blue Boy and The Star of the West. I have forgotten almost everything I learned at university in Hull but the names of the special street and the city’s old town pubs stay with me still.  The William Wilberforce, named for the Victorian anti-slavery campaigner,is now a Wetherspoon’s chain pub. At least it is still open.

It is 35 years since I was last in Hull city center and the intervening decades have not been particularly kind to either of us. Both of us have had a couple of dodgy makeovers  and  a few substantial knocks: we are not what we were.

In 1979, I was an 19 year old student, fresh faced and optimistic. Poor old Hull was fighting and losing the Cod War with Iceland.  A third of the city worked at sea. When the fishing rights were lost, Hull’s jobs went with them. The city, on England’s grey and blowy east coast, has since been dubbed the worst place in the UK.  Hull suffers soaring rates of crime and obesity. Its schools are more u-bend than sink.

Now, cheeringly, Hull has been designated the 2017 UK City of Culture and so the Hull Truck Theater company, the Ferens art gallery and the whaling museum will presumably be joined by lots of other venues showcasing all kinds of arts and talents. Perhaps the jewelry makers and artists will come back to the Land of Green Ginger.  Perhaps 2017 will be a great year for Hull and for me. I hope so.

We drove up Spring Bank past my student digs in Morpeth Street where I used to share an unspeakable toilet with five boys I didn’t know and one I did.

I wanted to check out the Polar Bear, my regular haunt in my halcyon days in Hull. The pub is still there but no longer opens at lunch time. Unlike the rest of the city, it seems to have weathered the last 35 years remarkably well and, from the outside, was exactly as I remembered. I peered through a window and found the ornate and bulbous Victorian wooden bar just as it was. I saw the rose-pink upholstered crescent-shaped booth where my brown-eyed boyfriend and I used to clutch each other, ham sandwiches and pints of mild at lunchtime. He would lean in close and sing me the songs of Ol’ Blue Eyes. He sounded just as good as Sinatra.

On a dull day on a dilapidated street corner on the outskirts of England I treated myself to a deep purple dream. In the mist of a memory it all wandered back to me, breathing my name and making me wistful for a moment or two.

The jollier pictures below were taken this week in Bridlington, another haunt from student days and cheerfully unchanged.


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Perfect Dinner Companions

” We never run out of conversation,” said John and looked adoringly across the table at his wife. “We’ve lived long enough to have a lot of stories.”

“And we’ve lived long enough to tell each of them a number of times” said Jackie and threw back her beautiful head with a laugh.

John and Jackie were at the table beside me on a quiet night at the Brick House. They live in Itchy Ankle (“112 years in the same house between us,” said John.) but they hadn’t eaten at this restaurant in the last 20 years. “We usually go out in Annapolis or DC” John said, explaining that they’d had car trouble that day, hence the decision to stay close to home. He is 88 and Jackie is 83. They were each enjoying a gin martini. Jackie started with oysters and called for hot sauce. John had cream of crab soup and blackened swordfish.

“We met as art students at the Corcoran, ” said John. “I still tell her she is beautiful.” She still is. He’s not too bad himself.

crab“Do you know the stained glass crab at the Airport?” asked John “Jackie is the artist.”

“He put in the man hours–5550 of them,” said Jackie. “John did the fabrication.”

“Do you always work in stained glass?” I asked.

“No, we work in every medium,” said Jackie. “I wrote and illustrated the Peterson Guide to Shells.”

“How lovely”

shells“I thought so”. She handed John the last of her martini and took a swig of her Sauvignon Blanc.

“Are you celebrating something special?” I asked

“Just life,” said Jackie ” Just living.” They both laughed.

Throughout the meal, they looked at each other and smiled. They shells colorsupplied each other with word here and there when remembering was hard. They were lively in their language, enthusiastic in their reminiscences about past travels, creations and triumphs, and curious to learn about me.

“You made our night,” said John as we ended the evening with hugs.

“You really made mine,” I told him “It’s a tonic to see you together.”

“Our doctor says we’re cute,” said Jackie and laughed again “I like that.”


See more pictures of the BWI crab here

Read more about the BWI crab here.

Buy Jackie’s guide to Shells here.

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“Mammy will have to spank your bottom”

“I love your accent” said Scott as he poured me a mimosa in a pint glass. “Thanks, ” I said wryly “All the gay men do.”

Tom, Mike and I were having a breakfast drink at Annies in Washington DC and I had figured one mimosa couldn’t do any harm. Wrong. Scott added a  long dash of Peach Schnapps to the pint glass and set the tall golden drink on the polished wooden bar. “Happy St. Patrick’s Day.” he said.

“You could make a fortune selling phone sex,” said Scott “Say it after me” ‘Mammy will spank your bottom.’”

Dial 1 800 SEX for Mrs. Doyle

Dial 1 800 SEX for Mrs. Doyle

I couldn’t say it of course. I am much too repressed.

I wonder if Belfast women could get an EU grant to help them develop this marketable skill? If Scott is right, the Ulster economy could be boosted enormously. We are already chatty, and with years of therapy funded from Brussels it might be possible to overcome our inhibitions and learn to talk dirty. Capacity building, that’s what they call it.

I’m not sure it would work though. Callers to Take a Beatin’ or Show Us Your Craic or ‘Bout Ye Big Boy would probably be surprised to have their–eh– flow interrupted by the seductive voice on the end of the line continually asking them to “Houl’ on a wee minute” .

As anyone who has ever conducted a phone conversation with a Belfast woman knows,this phrase will be used several times in the course of an average call.

“Houl’ on a wee minute–I need til get the door”

“Houl’ on a wee minute–the kettle’s just bilin…”

“Houl’ on a wee minute–Corrie’s on the telly”

“Houl’ on a wee minute–I’ve the pan on”

“Houl’ on a wee minute–our Kevin’s just walked in”

There is also a risk that, instead of attending to the matter in hand, the Irish sex worker will go off on a tangent or two:

“Mrs. Birch has gone. Her death was in the paper”

“Have you had your tea?”

and the inevitable:

“My head’s away. Now, what were we talkin’ about?”

Another career door closes. Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Select Danny Boy as your ring tone and don’t forget to call your mother.

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The Ugly Language of Free Enterprise

What are the planks of your strategy?

What are the planks of your strategy?

“What are our learnings?” inquired John G. and raised an ironic eyebrow. “We have clarity on what we need to operationalize. We need to own this space,” said John C. and snorted. “Without execution we have nothing to leverage, ” he continued, wryly. The others at Tom and Mike’s famous Wednesday night dinner joined in. There was talk of added value, drivers, synergy, buckets, parking lots, modalities, and optimization. We discussed what would be impacted, injected, energized and grown and of the need to be flexible, adaptive and, inevitably, innovative. We might have to downsize and let people go.  There was a risk that our initiatives could not be monetized, unless we reached out, partnered and integrated. We work for different organizations in many different industries and across at least three sectors but all of us are beset by this dreadful abuse of language.

Office talk is ugly and means almost nothing. I am pretty sure many of these words first

Planning to utlize new platforms?

Planning to utlize new platforms?

appeared on powerpoint slides, created or deployed to save characters and suggest busy self-importance. Once, these bullet-point banalities may have had a supporting narrative but now they roam our corridors and congregate by our water coolers, an independent cluster of vowels and consonants posing as big ideas and calls to action. Unfettered, they rampage through every enterprise, muffling good sense in meetings and protecting against plain speaking and hard work.

What are the phrases that haunt you this strategic planning season? Can you get through your presentation without promising thought-leadership or plundering low-hanging fruit? How will you enhance visibility and build relationships? Do share.

Climb that corporate ladder.

Climb that corporate ladder.

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How to be Happy

A gloom can descend on Itchy Ankle at this time of year, when we don’t quite believe spring is coming, and we are still paying off the bills we ran up over Christmas. Dirty impacted snow lines the roads, the gardens are still bare, and we must complete our taxes. We have segue-wayed from New Year abstinence into the strictures of Lent. It is not a lot of fun.

We are cheering each other up by embarking on the 100 happy days project which invites you to take a photo of something that makes you happy every day for, well, one hundred and take a moment to notice how good it makes you feel. You can keep the photos and the thoughts to yourself, or post them on Facebook or Twitter. It’s up to you.

I learned about the project from my friend Fiona in the UK, who is posting her happy on Facebook. Fiona is both creative and strong-willed and so, by day 3, she was liberally interpreting the rules and had moved on from photos. She posted a poem that made her happy. My kind of woman.

In Itchy Ankle we started on Tuesday. Easy. I tweeted a picture of one of our magnificent sunsets.

On Wednesday, after a happy interlude in the company of my friend Matt  (always worth photographing), I managed to mislay my iphone. Unfortunately, it is the only way I have of taking photos. It seemed like my project was shot. On Thursday, I noticed the sun on my face as I drove to a conference. I didn’t have the phone. On Thursday evening  I enjoyed dinner with 10 of the people from the coaching program I completed 6  years ago. I was wearing a new light wool scarf in beautiful shades of mint green, kingfisher blue and sunset red/gold. Fab scarf, great people, good times. No phone. On Friday, I had great fun in an improv session where it might have been a mistake to take pictures…

Reflecting on all of this last night, I considered that despite all the highs of the last few days, the most happy-making thing of all might have been the absence of the phone. No emails, no texts, no anxiety-inducing phone calls. The phone isn’t mine though. It belongs to my employer and is not the first one I have lost. Worry began to nibble.

Last night, I had a Facebook message from the restaurant where the phone was found. (This is why it pays to follow the places you frequent on social media.) Peace of mind is restored and I have 95 happy days to go.

You can read Fiona’s happy poem—Binker by A. A. Milne–here.






2014-03-08 13.10.15

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Good for the Soul

I am trying to improve my noticing skills and I am also meant to be taking more exercise. IMG_0787The noticing will be helpful for writing and for coaching, and the exercise will be helpful for life. Walking is easier, I find, if I have a camera in my hand. Instead of seeming sluggish when I stop every few steps, it is possible to appear creative and artistic. Thus I went this morning to Quiet Waters Park to notice nature close-up and to take the air.

The outing reminded me of Sunday afternoons when I was a child. We’d bundle into my father’s Ford Capri and go to Belvoir Park, or Cavehill or Tollymore, all within easy reach of home in Belfast. The idea was probably to encourage me to spend time outdoors and away from a book, and to have my rather more boisterous brother and sister tire themselves out. I would hold my mother’s hand and we’d look at plants and flowers close-up, bringing them home to press or for me to show off at school. I can see her now wearing her green anorak and ski pants, and feel the dryness of her houseworked palm. I was usually too hot in an aran sweater under my anorak and my wellies would chafe the back of my heels. My socks would somehow always worm their way down to the sole of my foot, forming sweaty accordian pleats underneath my arches. Really uncomfortable.  The leaf mold often made me sneeze.

My brother and sister would climb over tree trunks, throw sticks and get my dad to teach them how to skim stones. Their coats and sweaters would be quickly discarded. They had proper sneakers. I still don’t own a pair.  My dad usually brought his camera. Perhaps he, like me, needed some reason to walk, to look, and to stop, although pulling focus must have been difficult once he was loaded up with quilted coats and raggedy home knits from offspring 2 and 3.

IMG_0779There are still no leaves on the trees in Maryland, and that means that most of today’s noticing took place at ground level. I saw vines that looked like horses, a fungus shaped like a teapot, and green spores forming cathedral spires on a battered tree stump. I heard a wood pigeon and saw a chaffinch, so much bigger than its British cousin. Quiet Waters. In my head I sang the 23rd Psalm as I walked and noticed and snapped.  My soul was very much restored.

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